This Is a Story About Taking Notes in Meetings, but Please Read It Anyway

A simple note-taking strategy, featuring the greatest pen in the world

Illustration © Ross McCammon

I’ve stumbled upon an approach to taking handwritten meeting notes that has surpisingly transformed my work life over the last couple months.

First, the strategy. Then the idea.

The strategy is basically this:

  1. Acquire a sturdy full-size notebook (may I recommend the iScholar brand) and a Bic 4-Color Ballpoint Pen (which is, incidentally, the most useful writing implement ever invented).
  2. Select black or blue ink for your main run of notes.
  3. When you note an “action item,” switch to green ink.
  4. When you note something that is VERY IMPORTANT, a principle or a rule or a new way of thinking about something, switch to red ink.

That’s it. That’s the strategy.

Now for the idea…

What you end up with is a kind of river of notes but with islands of very important pieces of text. The green text amounts to a highly scannable to-do list embedded within your notes. Each action-item is surrounded by crucial context. The red text provides reference points to help you remember what’s really important about your work.

Hero.

The key is you don’t have to switch pens.

You don’t have to switch pens.

Doesn’t seem as revolutionary now that I’ve typed it out.

Anyway, the black or blue text is not only a record of your thoughts but crucial context. And there’s a lot of potential in that context. If you go back and read your notes weeks later (perhaps because you’re seeing what’s on your green to-do list), you might see a new way of thinking that wouldn’t have occurred to you at the time you recorded your thought.

Coincidentally (sort of), I’m currently reading the strangely compelling book How to Take Smarter Notes by education researcher Sönke Ahrens. In it, Ahrens promotes a different, and much more sophisticated, note-taking approach, but he points out the true value of thoughtful notes:

Imagine if we went through life learning only what we planned to learn of being explicitly taught. I doubt we would even have learned to speak. Each added bit of information, filtered only by our interest, is a contribution to our future understanding, thinking and writing. And the best ideas are usually the ones we haven’t anticipated anyway.

The key is giving the ideas in your notes structure from the outset. I have taken thousands of pages of handwritten meeting notes in my career, most of those notes have simply gone unread. I think that’s because I hadn’t been writing them in a readable way.

Tens of thousands of words of note-taking… and for what? If your notes aren’t inviting, then you’ll never return to them and learn from them. A smart but simple note-taking strategy turns your notebook into a living document.

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Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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Ross McCammon

Ross McCammon

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way